Scaling up – Have subjects come to the foreground (Part 1)

Scripts very often need subjects to become scaled up on screen without changing the viewing axis. Exploring the hows and whys of this need will eventually lead us to cut-ins, but before we get there, let’s start with the most elementary technique: having a character come to the foreground.


Entering the arena

Having characters in the background come to the foreground is a simple and effective way to introduce them in a new scene. In Gandhi (R. Attenborough, 1982), a Long Shot (LS) — supposedly Lord Irwin’s POV — shows Gandhi arriving at the deserted Vice-Regal Palace. Letting the car come closer to the camera turns the shot into a Medium Long Shot (MLS), at which scale the audience is able to identify the character by his clothes as he starts to get out of the car. In Contact (R. Zemeckis, 1997), the car that carries Drumlin, heading towards the camera from a Medium Long Shot (MLS) to a Medium Close Shot (MCS), introduces one of the main characters of the film in a straightforward way — accordingly to his uncompromising mindset.

Sometimes we need characters to walk to the foreground and pause for a moment, and sometimes we need them to walk past the camera. In Midnight Express (A. Parker, 1978), we realize that Billy — in an attempt to escape from prison — has dressed himself in a guard’s uniform. In this case, letting the character walk to the foreground and expose his new appearance is essential to conveying the story. But sometimes, depicting the character’s appearance is less important than depicting the context. In this case, the character can be let walk past the camera so that we see him pause in a reverse shot, with an emphasis on the part of the ‘arena’ he faces, as in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (S. Leone, 1966), when Tuco arrives in town for a duel.


Exposing business

The reason why characters move to the foreground is often to let the audience witness some specific action. In Jaws (S. Spielberg, 1975), Brody moves to the foreground to reach for a pistol from his bag. Only when he finds it are we allowed to see his face again. In Silverado (L. Kasdan, 1985), Mal races down from rocks in background to his father’s hat after he heard gunshots. This time, the prop is already waiting for the character in the foreground, but the overall effect is the same. In both cases, the goal of having the character move to the foreground is to expose his business, then and only then his face reacting in Medium Close Shot (MCS).


Becoming predominant

A character can move to the foreground to become more important by covering more screen space, as in The Social Network (D. Fincher, 2010), when Christy barges in Eduardo’s room in the middle of the night. Journalists have long used this technique to promote themselves, as ridiculed by the following shot from Jaws (S. Spielberg, 1975).

For characters, coming closer to the camera is also an efficient way to gain ascendancy over background characters. In Raiders of the Lost Ark (S. Spielberg, 1981), Marion — initially dominated by Jones’ shadow — reverses power balance by walking to the foreground and taking over the screen. In TV series episode The Wild Wild West: The Night of Jack O’Diamonds (I. J. Moore, 1967), by walking to the foreground to share his thoughts aloud, not only does El Sordo become predominant, but he also hides his men behind him, thus defying all competition. Simple and effective.

To go even further, a character can cast aside and evict another one from the screen still by moving to the foreground. In Young Sherlock Holmes (B. Levinson, 1985), Holmes leaves his fellow Watson behind to reveal his most important deduction to the audience, thus becoming the only subject of interest on screen. This also is a common way to separate characters on screen and launch into an alternate dialog, as in Contact (R. Zemeckis, 1997) when Hadden walks past Ellie to finish his story. This simple technique can turn friendly characters into opponents without the audience noticing it.


What’s up?

In this article, we saw three main reasons why you would need characters to move to the foreground: to introduce themselves, to expose some important action, or to become predominant on screen — often at the expense of the others. In part 2, we will explore three new cases, all related to emotions.


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